BELMONT (CBS SF/AP) — While airlines were struggling financially with empty seats as the coronavirus outbreak continues to grow in Northern California, they were still trying to lure potential passengers like Yago Ferreira with fare deals that were hard to resist.
Ferreira didn’t think much about the virus when he booked two trips earlier this month. The 27-year-old tech salesman from Belmont is set to fly to Brazil in August for $800 — a little more than half what he’s used to paying for his annual trip to see family.
He also picked up a $250 ticket for an Easter trip to surprise his mother in New Jersey.
About two days after Ferreira booked his flights, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus’ spread a pandemic. And there was news that four Transportation Security Administration officers at Mineta San Jose International Airport had tested positive for COVID-19.
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“I noticed that it’s starting to get a little bit worse,” said Ferreira, adding he intends to stick to his travel plans. “It’s starting, not to worry me, but it’s keeping me wary.”
Airlines currently are trying to lure potential passengers with extremely low fares on flights from San Francisco to Hawaii. For $258 you can fly United Airlines directly to Maui. The same flight with stops on Hawaii Airlines is as low as $228.
It seems to be the same story around the country.
At one time, Dylcia McBlackwell couldn’t justify taking a single spring vacation. Air fares were so cheap now, she decided to book three.
Now the 39-year-old food service worker from Chicago has tickets to fly to Denver to visit friends next month followed by a May trip to Charleston, South Carolina. After that, she’s booked a flight to Costa Rica. All for a combined total of $435 for trips that might normally cost $700 or more.
“You have just one life to live,” said McBlackwell, who plans to bring wipes to disinfect the tray tables in front of her airplane seats, and perhaps her own snacks. “Are you going to spend it sitting in your house scared? I’d rather be out enjoying it.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
Regardless, airlines are seeing bookings plummet and cancellations soar as fear of infection causes many Americans to avoid flying. Travel to the U.S. has been barred from most of Europe, China and Iran. Domestically, business conferences, sporting events, music festivals and other large public gatherings have been scrapped or postponed.
Airlines have been slashing flight schedules, especially on international routes, to cope with downward-spiraling demand from fearful leisure customers and a slowdown in business travel. One industry trade group has warned the pandemic could cost airlines worldwide up to $113 billion in revenue.
The proliferation of empty airline seats has some travelers making spur-of-the-moment ticket purchases to take advantage of steeply discounted prices.
“Travel is one of my favorite things to do and I’m always looking at flights to different places,” said Nick Williams of Muncie, Indiana. “I have never seen flights this cheap before.”
During his recent spring break, the 22-year-old Ball State University student paid $110 round trip to visit friends in Orlando, Florida. As soon as he returned to Indiana, he spotted a weekend fare back to Orlando for just $65.
“I was in Muncie for less than 48 hours,” said Williams, who hopped right back onto a plane to Florida. “I felt a little crazy doing it. But those opportunities don’t always arise.”
Williams isn’t oblivious to the coronavirus. Since his Florida trips, Ball State has canceled in-person classes for the rest of the spring semester. Courses will still be held online, but Williams said the campus seems eerily quiet. Unafraid to fly domestically, he’s ruled out overseas trips for now.
And cheap fares aren’t expected to overcome many travelers’ fears.
“If you are scared of flying, you are probably scared at any price,” Delta President Glen Hauenstein said recently.
Asked about younger travelers taking advantage of cheap airfares, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told reporters Thursday that those visiting countries where coronavirus is spreading should avoid contact with older relatives and family with chronic medical conditions for 14 days after returning.
“Don’t come home and then visit grandma in the nursing home,” Adams told a news conference in New Orleans. “Don’t go hang out around grandpa at Easter dinner and tell him all about the great trip that you just had to Europe.”